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The Origin of Song

Lyz Liddell’s speech in the 2015 NYC Secular Solstice:

Let’s talk for a few minutes about songs. You know some songs, right? You and the 7 billion other people on this planet? Right! They’re everywhere!

But weirdly enough, there’s very little research into the evolutionary origins of music and song.

Psychologist and linguist Stephen Pinker allocated a mere 11 of the 660 pages of How the Mind Works to a discussion of music. In those pages, he posits that music just a byproduct of other evolutionary traits conducive to language – it’s biologically useless, solely entertainment, and a sort of “auditory cheesecake.”

I happen to think that perspective is bullshit. Music appears in one form or another in every culture of the world, and has for ages of history. AND, researchers have found that in some cases, musical ability exists and persists even in the absence or loss of lingual capacity. Continue reading “The Origin of Song”

World on the Brink / Pale Blue Dot

 

This is the text used at the 2015 NYC Solstice, the during the Nightfall section. Originally this was performed and written by Raymond Arnold and Lyz Liddell, though it can be adapted for others.

Speaker 1 

The year is 1940. My name is Noel Regney, and the Germans have just invaded my country. Close friends of mine are dead. I have been drafted into the Nazi army against my will. Forced to wear their uniform. Forced to do things I am not proud of.

But I find ways to keep fighting for my country. From within Nazi ranks. I work as a spy for the French Resistance. And eventually, I arrange an ambush. My company falls into my trap. In the crossfire I am shot. But I survive, and I flee here, to Manhattan.

And in this new country, I begin to build a home. I join a Unitarian Universalist church. I marry a woman named Gloria with a voice like an angel, and we begin to write music together. Our songs play on radios across the country.

In 1942, my new country drops a bomb on Hiroshima.

And just like that, fifty thousand people are dead.

That’s the sort of thing that can happen, suddenly. Just like that.

In the wake of that explosion, a new kind of cold settles over the world. Radios and televisions across the country begin to tell stories about a possible apocalypse. My children are taught that if a nuclear strike is launched, they should push their desk against the wall and squat beneath.

We know that squatting beneath a wooden desk isn’t actually going to help, but we pretend like it does.

It’s something to do. It’s better than nothing.

Speaker 2 (Lyz Liddell)

The year is 1962, and my name is Vasili Arkhipov. I am an officer in the Soviet Navy.

The United States has put nuclear missiles in Turkey, in range of my country. To counter, my Russian leaders put nuclear missiles in Cuba, within striking distance of the US. The Americans bare their teeth. We raise their hackles. The hairs on our necks stand on end.

Our leaders and theirs want to de-escalate, but our militaries have thousands of moving parts. The labyrinth of game theory and politics we’ve woven around ourselves seems impossible to escape.

My submarine is off the coast of Cuba, and we’ve just lost contact with Moscow. My Captain and his third in command believe that nuclear war has already begun. They want to launch our nuclear torpedo in retaliation. My Captain is ready. His hand hovers over the button.

As Second in command, my authorization is needed to strike. I believe that too much is at stake.  I argue, fiercely, that we must wait, that we must surface and seek further orders. Tempers rise. Everyone yells. But in the end, the captain listens. We wait.

In the morning, the sun rises. Hiding in our silent ship, we still don’t know what’s happening on the surface. We’re dripping sweat. But the world turns, and humanity lives on. For now.

Speaker 1

In Manhattan, I go to work each morning – my coworkers and I listen to the radio all day, waiting for an announcement that everything is about to end. I walk home each night, silent.

I go to sleep beside my wife and children, uncertain whether I’ll wake up the next day. But each morning the sunlight keeps spilling through the window curtain.

I walk home for the third time that week. It’s cold October night. There’s a star shining bright above me and I want to find it beautiful but all I can think about missiles flashing in the sky, and I feel so powerless and alone.

And then I round a corner.

And I see two women. Each is pushing a stroller, and in each stroller is a baby. The two children look at each other. And they smile. And they laugh. And they have no idea what’s happening.

And in that moment, a song comes to me, lyrics forming in my head as fast as I can think them. I arrive home and share it with my wife. And she sits at the piano and writes a melody and then we start singing. And we can’t sing it all the way through without breaking down sobbing, but we hold each other and try again.

The song is written in the language of the Christian stories. But the plea is universal. A desperate hope that thousands of confident ideologies, economic doctrines and religions could find a way to coexist, in a world where they had the power to destroy each other.

[One of the candles is extinguished. Speaker 1’s mannerisms change to his usual self]

The year is 2013. My name is Raymond Arnold, and I’m listening to the song Do You Hear What I Hear. I’m reading about a week in human history – where one man on a submarine stopped a nuclear war. Where another man in manhattan wrote a desperate plea for peace, that people promptly misinterpreted and ignored.

And I’m noticing, that the song was about the birth of a story.

The story is born, like all of us, small, and powerless. Whispered by the night wind to the humblest of creatures. But each person it touches, it helps to become stronger, and wiser. And they in turn help the story to evolve – to become more useful, and more powerful.

The story gives a shepherd boy the courage to walk before a king and demand his attention. It gives the king the humility to listen, and to learn.

And then, having reached the ear of the king, the story changes the world.

And it occurs to me, that the lyrics to this song are, in fact, incredibly open ended. From its birth, this song has been steeped in metaphor, and evolving interpretation.

So I would like us to sing this song together, in honor of those two children, on that cold october night, who woke up the next day. Who lived to grow old. Who, one way or another, brought a little more light to the world.

 

[Do You Hear What I Hear is sung, transitioning into a faint reprise of Bring the Light.]

Speaker 2

The year is 1989. My name is Elizabeth Liddell, and I am about to turn 8 years old. I’m coming down the stairs to the living room, where Dad’s watching the evening news, as usual. “Wait a minute,” he says. “Come watch this.” He points to the TV, where I see a group of teenagers with mohawks and studded leather jackets taking sledgehammers to a vertical slab of spray-painted concrete. I watch for a few minutes, and then I wander off. I didn’t really know what was so important about those teenagers that Dad felt I should stop and watch, but I remembered it.

To this day, I remember watching that clip of the news, watching what I now understand were German teenagers helping to tear down the Berlin Wall at the end of the Cold War. My father, who had lived through the Great Depression, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War, recognized the monumental importance of that event, and made sure his daughter stopped and took note – even if I was too young to understand at the time.

History is a funny thing.

The same terrifying game theory that led us to the brink of nuclear war, also led us to a new frontier.

The US and the Soviets didn’t go to space for the noblest of reasons. It’d be nice to claim we did it for science, or for the adventure. But mostly, the space program is just one more weapon in our ideological war.

But it’s interesting. Once humanity finally got to space, we turned around, and we saw that.

[Gestures to the a video of the earth from space, camera slowly pulling away to reveal the Pale Blue Dot photo]

And for the first time, anyone making a plea for peace, anyone desperately begging for people to put aside their grievances and protect their home, has a symbol they can point to, and say:

Look at that.

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.

On that dot is everyone you love, everyone you know,

Everyone you ever heard of,

Every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

The aggregate of our joy and suffering.

Thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines.

 

Every hunter and forager

Every hero and coward,

Every creator and destroyer of civilization.

 

Every king, and peasant.

Every young couple in love.

Every mother and father,

Hopeful child

Inventor and explorer.

 

Every teacher of morals.

Every corrupt politician.

Every “superstar”. Every “supreme leader.”

Every saint and sinner in the history of our species,

lived there,

on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast, cosmic  arena.

 

Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors,

so that in glory and triumph,

they could become momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

 

Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel,

on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner.

 

How frequent their misunderstandings.

How eager they are to kill one another,

How fervent their hatreds

 

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance

The delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe,

Are challenged by this point of pale light.

 

Our planet is a lovely speck, in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

In our obscurity, in all this vastness

There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere,

To save us from ourselves.

 

The earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life.

There is nowhere else, in the near future, to which our species could migrate.

Visit, yes. Settle, not yet.

Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.

[The last candle is extinguished]

Mistakes Were Made

(This was originally a speech given a the 2015 NYC Solstice)

I have a confession to make.

When I first put together this event 5 years ago, I wanted two things. I wanted a holiday that celebrated human achievement. And I wanted a holiday, founded on the pursuit of truth – even when that truth is uncomfortable, or inconvenient.

And what happened is, the Solstice, I think it ended up implying a narrative that isn’t fully accurate. The idea that you had hunter-gatherers, scratching in the dirt, shivering in the cold. And then agriculture happened, and that was an unambiguous force for good that lifted us out of the darkness and into the future and the shape of that trajectory was like this [swoosh!].

And that’s a lot better than the fall-from-grace narrative, where once we were noble savages and then civilization happened and everything went to hell. It’s not wrong. But it’s misleading in some ways.

Agriculture meant that each person produced more food per capita. And that let us have entire professions that had nothing to do with food – professional toolmakers, artisans. Professional thinkers. Leaders, who figured out how to coordinate people.

Soldiers.

And this led to empires, to incredible monuments, to incredible scientific discoveries. But the march of progress has almost always been fundamentally intertwined with militaristic expansion. And that’s not something we need to feel bad about but it is something we need to understand, if we want the future to unfold in particular ways.

Agriculture is even more complicated than that, though. On the grand scale, it meant more lives, more technological and scientific marvels. But for the average individual, average quality of life actually went down. The extra food people created was usually taken as taxes. People ended up working longer hours, not fewer, in agricultural societies – that’s true even to the present day.

People had more food, but instead of a wide variety of nuts and berries and meats, we ate a select few monocrops. There were more people living to childbearing age but they were more malnourished. Stunted growth. Lower life expectancy.

We lived, packed densely together, often in the same room as our livestock. And that was breeding ground for disease that just didn’t exist in hunter gathering tribes. Farmers were less healthy.

All of this went hand in hand with the march of what we call progress. And again I don’t think it’s helpful to call any of this good, or bad. But I think it’s important to understand.

And what embarrasses me is not that I didn’t know all this 5 years ago. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying very hard. If you always wait for perfect knowledge you’ll never act. The reason I’m disappointed in myself here, is that I’ve known about this for two years. And I didn’t do anything about it.

Because it would be inconvenient, and awkward. We had all these great songs about agriculture and progress figuring out how to tell a more nuanced story was a challenge. And I still haven’t really solved it.

Apparently, in a culture that cares deeply about the pursuit of truth, the lag time on noticing a mistake, and changing traditions, is about 2 years. And that’s… disconcerting.

But it’s worth noting, that even if 2 years is disappointing, it’s a lot better than 200, or 2000. Progress is complicated but it is real. I’m proud to be a part of a human era and a specific subculture where admitting a mistake is rewarded, instead of punished. That is not how it’s always been. And it is frankly incredible that I’m surrounded by people who encourage each other to get at noticing mistakes, and changing course.

And that brings us to this song. [cue slide for “God Wrote the Rocks / Time Wrote the Rocks”]

This song has always been a bit controversial. A lot of people didn’t like using the word God metaphorically. What especially worried me though, is that this song is about the conflict between science and religion. And there are real, important conflicts there. But if this holiday is going to succeed – if, in a 100 years, it’s going to feel important and not just a relic of the past, then our brand of rationality cannot just be about pointing out other groups of people’s mistakes.

It’s important to be able to do that sometimes, but for this holiday to thrive, it needs to be about taking ownership of your own beliefs, scrutinizing them, always learning. Always willing to update or abandon something beautiful if we’ve realized it doesn’t quite fit with a changing world.

The Origin of Stories

For billions of years, across endless darkness… stars were born, and burned, and died. An nobody mourned their passing nor thought them beautiful.

But in the wake of their violent death came new stars.
Slowly evolving over the eons. Denser. Heavier.
Until at last, at least one fragile dot was formed,
At least one line of chemical replicators born.

And for millions of years,
Biological creatures were born and lived and died,
Incapable of mourning each other’s passing,
nor thinking the world around them beautiful.

But in the wake of *their* violent death came children,
Slowly evolving over the eons,
Not in any particular direction that anyone intended.

Until, at last, two boundaries were passed:

The border between uncaring matter,
And matter arranged into patterns with desires and drive.

The border between unthinking matter,
And matter that could contemplate the patterns around it.

And somewhere, at some point, in those fertile imaginations,
The first ideas took hold. The first stories were told.

And for thousands of years,
Stories were born, and lived, and often but did not always die.
They evolved, not precisely in any particular direction,
but neither entirely directionless.
We shaped our stories, and they shaped us in turn.

In time, they came to drive our civilization.

Our stories have helped us to thrive,
to perservere against overwhelming odds.
Our stories helped us to cooperate,
When by all rights we should have destroyed one another.

And sometimes, our stories led us to genocide,
Or to erect institutions beyond our control,
Indifferent to our suffering.

We live in a world where suffering and death are realities.
And I will not try to tell you that that is somehow okay, because it’s not.
And I will not try to tell you that we will necessarily ever overcome those things,
Because I don’t know for certain whether we can,
And tonight is *not* about blind hope.

I can tell you will we will try.

And I can tell you this:
That Galileo. Anne Frank. Rosa Parks. Carl Sagan.
Everyone you’ve ever loved.
Not anyone who ever was, but everyone you’ve ever heard of…
There is a sense in which a small part of those people have survived,
Their patterns preserved in the stories we tell.

And that might seem meaningful to you, or it might not.
But what definitely seems meaningful to me is this:

We are part of a story that is greater than ourselves.
Our pursuit of truth, and our pursuit of happiness –
In some ways they are incredibly fragile.
But compared to any one of us,
They are incredibly difficult to extinguish.

We are a part of a story that is powerful, and beautiful and will probably outlive us.
It could possibly outlive our children.
It could potentially outlive humanity.

We, the people in this room, the people on this planet, have the power to shape those stories, and guide them into the future.

Solstice 2015

Around mid-September, I’ll be beginning a promotional push for 2015 Winter Solstice celebrations across the United States (and hopefully world!). If you’d like to run an event in your city, send me an email (at raemon777@gmail.com)  and we can schedule a skype session talking through how to get started.

So far, we have the following Solstice plans underway:

New York City
Los Angeles (Sunday Assembly)
San Francisco (Less Wrong community)
San Francisco (Sunday Assembly community)
San Diego (Sunday Assembly)
Boston (Some combination of MIT student groups and Sunday Assembly)
Seattle (Less Wrong community)

If you’re interested in holding a larger event, it’s important get dates and venues pinned down soon (it gets more difficult to find a venue the closer to the holidays you get). I’m available to help talk you through your first Solstice whether it’s intended to be a small event for your family or a big festival for your community.

Ritual Lab vs "Actual Ritual"

I wanted to talk briefly about Ritual Lab, “Actual Rituals” (for lack of a better term) and how they relate.

Ritual Lab

Ritual Lab is a practice I’m refining, and that I recommend others try out: Get together with a smallish group of people, try out either a half-baked ritual or a couple “ritual-fragments”, and discuss how to do better. Ideally someone shares notes with the broader community.

Ritual lab is important because it allows us to rapidly iterate without worrying if an idea is perfect.

The goal of ritual lab (individually, and as a growing practice), is twofold:

  • To refine the overall art of Rational Ritual
  • To help ritual-enthusiasts transition into ritual practitioners, and to help ritual-practitioners become a strong community (able and willing to help each other achieve great things, while maintaining a strong intellectual integrity)
As such, the target audience for Ritual Lab(s) are:
  • People interested (or curious) about becoming ritual practitioners (i.e. people who actually help make Actual Rituals happen – this can be as a “creative director” or as a “logistics person” or “the person who helps get coffee/wine/boiling-water-representing-the-universe, etc”)
  • People who are interested in experiencing ritual and are willing to experiment (and be experimented on, in a safe/consensual way)
In Ritual Lab, the core values are, quite literally, Rationality and Ritual.

“Actual Ritual”

By contrast, “Actual Ritual” is the output of Ritual Lab that you take back to other, broader communities. You can do Actual Ritual without a Ritual Lab, but it’s helpful to have an explicit community who is willing to beta-test ideas enthusiastically.

By “Actual”, I mean there are values involved other than Ritual for its own sake. You’re celebrating something emotionally or intellectually significant.

When designing Actual Rituals, it’s important to keep in mind the goals of the community. Are you trying to foster a particular set of principles or moral code? Are you trying to just get some friends better in touch with their emotional sides?

Does the community have reputational goals? You may want to use ritual-techniques (such as singing, dancing or storytelling) but not explicitly brand them as such. (i.e. there can be something ritualistic about a TED talk, especially if there’s some audience involvement, but it feels very different than gathering around a circle of candles in the darkness or some such. Simply using (or not using) the word “ritual” can matter a lot to the emotional tone or reputational effects.

Ritual Lab is R&D, which I think is really valuable and needs to be cultivated. But it’s also important to test our work in the “real” world, outside of the tiny demographic of people-super-into-ritual.

(This represents my continuously evolving thoughts as of exactly right now. Commentary on this framework/distinction is welcome)

Ritual Lab: Improvised Music

Tonight in NYC we had a ritual lab. I wanted to share some notes from it. (This is written as a set of instructions you can either follow, or take inspiration.)

The pattern I’ve settled into for Ritual Lab is “start with a rough idea of the kind of experience you want to explore, discuss it and refine it into something workable, and then try out the experience. (Ritual Lab is optimized for learning, rather than for executing a complete experience, but ideas can then be further refined and made more complete)

Tonight’s concept was “improvised music.” With minimal explicit instruction, starting from silence, could we create a shared group musical experience? Would it be meaningful?

Introductions (Getting to know each other, setting the tone)

We began going around, sharing our names, and saying “what brought us to ritual lab this night?” (Many of us gave fairly general answers about why they appreciated ritual. I may want to refine the wording in the future to prompt “what are you specifically looking for tonight?” so that it remains a useful introduction even if everyone knows each other.)
Someone suggested ALSO telling everyone our names again at the end, when people were more likely to actually remember. But then we forgot to do so. 😛

7 Minutes of Reflection: Value and Concern

A “new tradition” I’ve been trying out lately is to begin each Ritual Lab with 7 minutes of silent reflection. During this time, people are encouraged to meditate and bring themselves to a tranquil state – and then think about 2 questions. Tonight, the questions were:

Have you had any music experiences, improv’d or otherwise, that were meaningful to you?
Do you have any concerns – either logistical or emotional,  about ways an improvised music experience might go poorly?

Afterwards, people go around the circle briefly describing their answers to one question, then again around the circle briefly describing their answers to the other.

After THAT, more freeform discussion follows as people respond to each others’ ideas. The facilitator should gradually direct the conversation towards a concrete plan of What-To-Do.

(Commentary:

The intention of the 7 minutes is multifold:

  • It helps people reach a tranquil, ritual-receptive state.
  • It gives people opportunity to practice thinking, both about how ritual can be valuable and about how it might go wrong. In some cases “wrong” means “unsafe and dangerous” but in other cases it can simply be “some people might get confused or uncomfortable because X – maybe we can fix it by doing Y?”
  • The simple act of asking both questions can be reassuring to newcomers.

Music, Round I

We set a goal of “maintain a very long improvised music jam, for 15-30 minutes.” I suggested this goal so that people would have time to fully lean into the experience, and also because it was an interesting challenge.

We did not end up going more than 5-10 minutes, but it did feel like it reached a meaningful conclusion. (We ended up deciding multiple shorter sessions were better, because we could learn from each one)

Format for the first round was:

  • Begin with one person making a repetitive sound, rhythm or movement.
  • One by one, going around a circle, each person adds another small loop of music, drumming and/or dancing to the existing sounds/rhythms.
  • Eventually, a particular designated leader would do something to change the vibe of the music, to keep it from getting stale.
  • Theme – we felt it would be more poignant to have a theme, but it ALSO would be easier to jam with non-verbal music. We decided to have a theme of “Growth”, which people could interpret on their own, find emotions that tied in with it, and let those emotions come out through non-verbal song

Results: We spent about 50% of the time grooving in the zone with each other, and 50% feeling slightly unsure of ourselves. We realized that because there were SOME instructions, but not many, people were a bit afraid to add new things without stepping on the designated-leaders toes

Music, Round II: Whatever the hell you want

So we tied it again without any instructions whatsoever (people could pick their own theme/emotion to cultivate), and it actually worked pretty well – hit a very solid groove. Some people got to a relatively deep “ritual space”, others just found it relatively fun.

(This doesn’t reliably work with arbitrary people, but this group had >50% skilled singers)

I decided to cultivate the emotions of anguish and hope during the second round, and I was surprised how easy I found it to steep myself in those.

Round III: Dance

I had a vague hope that we’d organically start dancing during the first two rounds, but it didn’t really happen. So for the third round we instead listened to music and tried to focus on moving rather than singing.

It’s fairly hard to find a song that EVERYONE likes to dance to, but the song we used – Level Up, by Vienna Teng, worked for most of the people there, and the people it DID work for found it really moving and transcendent. We ended up listening to it once again just to learn the lyrics, and then danced a second time to it, this time fully “getting” the song emotionally.

Debrief/Thoughts for the future

Between each round, we talked about what worked or didn’t work for us. We ended with some vague plans for how to continue to polish a series of improv music/dance/thematic exercises that take people on an emotional journey, and how to scale it up so more people can participate.

Ritual and Safety

META – I’ve noticed that I’m way more comfortable posting things to facebook that posting on the bog. I’m going to try out a thing where whenever I post on facebook about ritual I mirror it here. Because so far I’ve been failing pretty hard at the “actually share knowledge gained from Ritual Lab.” (I keep feeling intimidated by the prospect of writing things up)

Rational/(trans)Humanist ritual has two main challenges:

1) How to create something meaningful
2) How to create something safe, that doesn’t end up rehashing the harmful things that atheists are trying to get away from

The problem with 1 is that we’re not very skilled at it. We need to get more skilled. The way you get more skilled is by trying things, seeing what works, iterating.

The problem with the problem with 1 is that iterative feedback loops have a long history of outputting unintended consequences (like causing humans to spend 10,000 years doing backbreaking farm work that didn’t end up actually making individual people’s lives better until after the industrial revolution).

((See also, centuries of rituals that were coercive, punished questioning, etc))

The past century is littered with attempts at humanist ritual that failed, are in decline, or are failing to attract new blood. I think there are several reasons for this, but among them is that while we had individuals and groups trying to create beautiful things, we didn’t have a collaborative system that allowed us to gain knowledge over time (standing on the shoulders of giants, et al)

So….

Creating *good* ritual requires at least some degree of recursive self improvement. Creating *safe* ritual requires a lot of upfront work to make sure that recursive self improvement doesn’t spiral out of control.

This problem seems familiar.

Solstice for Kids

Right now, Solstice is optimized for adults, and evokes “Midnight Mass” more than anything else.

Ultimately, if Secular Solstice is successful, it needs to be fun for kids. It’s been pointed out to me that, for good or for ill, it needs to compete with Christmas on capitalism’s terms: if this weird new holiday isn’t going to get them the Hot New Toy that all the cool kids are getting, kids aren’t going to care about it.

Right now there’s a phenomenon wherein young atheists care a lot about atheism/humanism/secularism during college, but then get on with their lives and disappear off the Secular Community Grid for a decade. Their social lives are filled with fun young-adult activities. Until suddenly they have kids and they feel a need to give those kids a community that’ll help them be strong, happy and virtuous.

By default, the communities they turn to tend to be religious. Some new parents end up going to Ethical Culture or the UU. Many more end up going to something traditionally religious. Or something like Boy Scouts, which isn’t officially religiously affiliated but is heavily supported by the Mormons.*

Right now I don’t have kids, and like many other secular organizers, I’ve been creating the product that want – a social world for people my age, with more profound-ness than what I’ve found before. But in the long game a) I’ll be older, possibly with kids, b) for secularism to win the culture-war, it needs to provide a valuable service to the majority of people who don’t super-much care about atheism, but would prefer a non-religious community/culture for their kids if possible.

I was recently told by a parent that for their family to actually switch from Secular Christmas to Solstice, it’d need to actually make their kids happy. This also suggests there needs to be a clear roadmap for parents – how to use Solstice to make their kids happy.

Very vague ideas so far:

  •  Embed giftgiving into the holiday more directly, with a specific eye in mind for what kids want as opposed to what’s fun for adults.
  •  Perhaps write a Solstice children’s book, that is both a fun story for kids and a *useful* picture for adults about what family-Solstice looks like. According to wikipedia, “The Night Before Christmas” poem actually played a pretty big role in shaping Christmas towards a more secular holiday.
  • Then again, thinking in terms of traditional media is pretty limiting. Night Before Christmas was successful as a poem/book in an era where books were the way you broadcast ideas. An interactive game on the internet might be more of the way to get things done.

Holidays, Sunday Assemblies and Rules of Three

So, what comes next after Winter Solstice? Summer Solstice? Equinoxes?

It’s a surprisingly complicated problem. There should clearly be more than one secular holiday. But four (following the Solstice/Equinox wheel of the year) feels like too many. So… three holidays? But how do you divide the year up in that case?

Sunday Assembly, the current rising-star-poster-child for non-theistic congregations, suggests an answer (originally invented by Korin Scott and some colleagues at SA-Portland).

Three Seasons

Sunday Assembly’s motto has three parts – “Live Better”, “Help Often”, and “Wonder More.” These do essentially sum up the things I think are important, and the things that I think guide most secular community-builders.

So, rather than dividing the year into seasons based on geography and climate (which are different all over the world), instead divide it into three seasons based on those three principles. And then, every four months, have a big holiday that transitions us from one season to the next.

This works out surprisingly well – “Live Better” comes on the heels of New Years, when everyone’s just made a bunch of resolutions they probably won’t actually keep. This seasons provides the focus of “help each other actually keep those resolutions”, and a general atmosphere of “let’s make our lives as awesome as possible.”

Then third-of-the-way-through-the-year, when our lives are going awesome, spring has come and we’re full of optimism and energy, we transition into helping others. Go out as a community and do projects that make the world a better place and help us feel excited and optimistic about it in the process.

Finally, as summer gives way to autumn and the world grows cold, we turn towards reflection about our wonder of the universe we live in.

There’s arguments to be made for switching that order around (“December is IRS-sponsored charity month, so why not have that be the ‘Help Often’ month?”). I think that’s a legitimate argument there, but I tentatively think it’s better to associate helping with the outdoors and good weather. (I’ll have another post at some point exploring this in more detail)

But Wait, There’s More

So we want three holidays highlighting each of these principles. Designing a holiday is not easy and I think it’s better to discuss the constraints of the problem before getting too much into specifics. But there’s one more rule of three that I think’d be relevant.

I think it’s best if each holiday is as thematically different from the others as possible. One way to divide them may be on the central conflict that the holiday represents. In literature, conflicts can be presented in three groups: “Man vs Man,” “Man vs Nature”, and “Man versus self.”

(Apologies for the sexist language – “Person vs Person” doesn’t sound quite as dramatic. I also plan to do a post about inherent problems with sexism in poetic language)

The Solstice already has a strong Humans-vs-Nature subtheme, which dovetails nicely with “Wonder of the universe” (the universe being awe-inspiring both in its beauty and in it’s cold indifference).

A “Live Better” holiday would focus on “Person vs Self”, contemplating your own shortcomings and working to change them, while also celebrating your individuality, your successes so far, and your potential for growth).

And when it comes to helping others, “People vs people” is clearly relevant. Many problems in the world exist either because humans compete for resources, or because humans cannot coordinate effectively to solve problems.

I don’t think these should be ironclad frameworks that guide the creation of new holidays, but I find they help point my brain in directions it would not have otherwise gone.